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People gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt September 20, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt police seal off Tahrir Square amid calls for protest

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces sealed off Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the so-called Arab Spring uprising in 2011, to prevent possible protests Friday against the country’s president.

The closures come amid a harsh security clampdown following rare demonstrations in several cities last weekend, all of which were broken up by police. Lawyers say more than 2,000 people have been arrested since then, though Egypt’s general prosecutor claims his office has questioned no more than 1,000 people over the latest protests.

Street demonstrations have been almost completely silenced in recent years by draconian measures imposed under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former general.

The demonstrations erupted over corruption allegations leveled earlier this month against the military and el-Sissi. Those allegations were made by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who said he had worked with the military for 15 years. El-Sissi warned Friday against “deceitful” attempts to discredit his rule.

Riot police barricaded streets and bridges leading into Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands had gathered in 2011 to demand the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Several subway stations in the downtown area were closed, purportedly for maintenance.

The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013, shortly after el-Sissi led the military’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president, amid mass protests against that president’s brief rule.

Earlier this month, self-exiled contractor Mohamed Ali posted inflammatory videos accusing the president and some military commanders of misuse of public funds to build presidential palaces and a tomb for the president’s mother. The allegations came as economic reforms and austerity have squeezed Egypt’s lower and middle classes badly. Ali has renewed his call for Egyptians to take to the streets Friday, the first day of the weekend.

El-Sissi arrived Friday morning at Cairo airport from New York, where he had been attending the U.N. General Assembly at the time the protests broke out.

“It is all based on lies, distortion and fabrication. You should be aware of that,” he said. Hundreds of his supporters rallied to greet him, raising his picture and waving Egyptian flags. Later in the day, more of el-Sissi’s supporters rallied in east Cairo, raising banners reading “No to terrorism” and “We stand with you.”

The recent crackdown on political activists has elicited strong criticism from human rights advocates.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over “the lack of due process” following the arrests, referring to reports that those detained were denied legal representation and charged with “serious offenses”.

Human Rights Watch also said Friday that Egypt’s authorities should respect the right of peaceful assembly by allowing protests and should release all those arrested.

“The nationwide crackdown on protests suggests that President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi is terrified of Egyptians’ criticisms,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Since Ali posted his first video, state-run media have responded with a staunch campaign linking him to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and accusing him of instigating chaos.

“They won’t let you achieve any success or enjoy anything; we are at war with them,” said el-Sissi, alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was banned after the 2013 overthrow of late president Mohamed Morsi, who hailed from the group. Since then, the group’s members have either been jailed or forced into exile.

Separately, security officials and medical sources said militants attacked a security checkpoint Friday, killing four forces and a civilian and wounding three others in restive northern Sinai Peninsula.

The officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to brief the media, said the militants attacked security forces with automatic rifles and grenades in the small town of Dir el Abd before running away. Officials said warplanes hunted down the militants and struck their vehicles and motorcycles, leaving at least 10 dead.

Egypt has been battling Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula for years but the insurgency escalated after the military overthrown of Morsi.